SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Stephon Tuitt scooped up a loose ball, took off for the end zone and and didn't look back, running 77 yards into the end zone and to the forefront of minds thousands of miles across the ocean.
"That was the longest run I'll probably ever have in my life," Tuitt said Wednesday.
The sophomore defensive end's breakout game has been in the works since he signed with Notre Dame nearly two years ago. A five-star recruit -- with only superhuman South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney ranking ahead of him at his position -- Tuitt and Aaron Lynch were supposed to be the star defensive ends of the future from the minute each stepped on campus in South Bend.
That's the way things looked in Notre Dame's Champs Sports Bowl loss to Florida State last December. Tuitt and Lynch were perhaps the two biggest standouts in the game. And Tuitt's emergence wasn't a coincidence, as he said the month of practices leading up to the bowl game helped him immensely.
"From that point to the bowl game, it hit me to know about the defense," Tuitt said. "It was all better, (I) was all comfortable then."
Lynch has since transferred to USF, desiring being back in his native state of Florida. But Tuitt's still in northern Indiana, and his offseason mantra is beginning to pay dividends not only on the field, but off it too.
"The only word I remember him using was dominate; dominate in the classroom, which he did in the summer, over 3.5 (GPA)," coach Brian Kelly said. "He's been on this mission of, whatever it is, and it's not just football, it's everything in his life, it's film study -- last night, he's in there film studying, taking notes, and I think he's just a very, very driven young man right now."
Kelly added that, during running drills in fall camp, Tuitt ran not with his fellow defensive ends, but with the team's cornerbacks. He showed off that speed on Saturday in taking his fumble recovery 77 yards into the end zone, sprinting his way toward six points with the kind of speed rarely seen in a 300-pound lineman.
But that athleticism fits with a sight offensive lineman Chris Watt relayed from earlier in the summer.
"In practice one time, Tuitt dropped back in pass coverage and was covering a wide receiver man-to-man and doing it pretty well," Watt said. "We were watching it on film during camp and it was pretty ridiculous."
Notre Dame will face plenty of challenging offenses this season, from Michigan State and Stanford's powerful rushing attacks to USC and Oklahoma's outstanding passing abilities. While Tuitt is only one of 11, he's someone who could be key in Notre Dame's ability to stop those opponents from finding the end zone.
"The fire is lit with him to dominate and be the best at everything he does," Kelly said.